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I have a True Neutral Paladin that is also a Fallen Aasimar. He has fully embraced darkness, letting it into his heart and spurned his celestial heritage. He hasn't gone fully evil purely because he still wishes to help and cannot bring himself to kill/hurt innocent people. He came to me with an interesting question however, wishing to re-flavor his Divine Smite.

So, what would the balance implications be of changing Divine Smite (Radiant Damage), calling it Necrotic Smite and having it dealing Necrotic Damage instead?

What are the balance implications of allowing the Paladin to decide if his Smite deals Radiant or Necrotic damage on a per turn basis?

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Analysis

Changing Divine Smite over to dealing Necrotic Damage weakens the ability. In total, across all official sourcebooks, there are 9 creatures that are Resistant to Radiant Damage, 1 that is Immune, and 9 that are Vulnerable. On the other hand there are 46 creatures Resistant to Necrotic Damage, 38 that are Immune, and none that are Vulnerable. And, perhaps of note, many of the things Resistant or Immune to Radiant damage are often Good aligned--so adventurers are somewhat less likely to end up fighting them.

Thus, by switching the Paladin over to dealing Necrotic damage, you are increasing the number of creatures that can resist or ignore their Smite...and you've completely lost all creatures that are Vulnerable to your Smite.

On the other hand, if you allow them to switch between Radiant and Necrotic damage at-will, it is a (relatively mild) technical buff to the ability.

There are a total of 10 creatures that are Resistant or Immune to Radiant Damage...of those 10, 4 of them also have Resistance or Immunity to Necrotic Damage: Aurelia and a Deathpact Angel from the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica, a Solar from the Monster Manual, and Zariel from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. So, mechanically speaking, by allowing the Paladin to pick between Radiant and Necrotic, you are reducing the number of "totally immune" creatures from 1 to 0, and "Resistant" from 9 to 4.

As for Vulnerability...Divine Smite already deals Radiant Damage, which 9 creatures are Vulnerable to. Adding the option to switch to Necrotic damage does not add any more Vulnerable creatures--so that's effectively a non-issue. But this, of course, leads to...

While this is technically a buff, it will be limited by the character's knowledge. If you have the option to deal Necrotic damage, there's always the chance that you'll choose to use it against one of the 84 types of creature that are Resistant or Immune to Necrotic Damage. So while you technically have the mechanical advantage of being able to pick the right damage type to deal to get around Resistances and Immunities, or pick 'Radiant' against a creature that is Vulnerable to that type--there's a chance of picking the 'wrong one' and ending up hitting a Helmed Horror with Necrotic Damage (which it is immune to). In short--you're more likely to pick the 'wrong damage type' and end up dealing less damage than if you just stuck with always doing Radiant Damage.

(Note: totals are not including creatures that are simply named versions of a base monster...such as how dndbeyond lists several named creatures that are simply a name bolted to a Lich statblock. These totals were acquired by filtering on dndbeyond and then manually counting the results.)

Is this a Bad Thing?

Not necessarily. As long as the player knows what they are getting themselves into, if they are willing to take on a mechanical detriment to their character in the name of things fitting the design they had in their head--then that's fine.

I have played with and run games for many D&D players (and been one myself) who make mechanically sub-optimal choices in the name of building a character that fits the design they have in their head.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fantastic (and honestly surprising!) analysis. +1. I did not expect to think that wasn't a big deal. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 3 '19 at 14:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Incredible write up! I knew that Necrotic damage had quite a few areas where it wouldn't affect a creature but didn't realize it was so extensive! It would be an incredible handicap for him to have purely Necrotic strikes and even if he could flip back and forth, it seems he'd be at an incredible disadvantage (unless he metagamed). I imagine he will still push forward with a sub-optimal choice here. He has expressed that he feels his character would hate himself for dealing Radiant damage, hence the discussion starting of having him do Necrotic instead. \$\endgroup\$ – ConfusedDM Jul 3 '19 at 15:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ He actually forgoes using Lay on Hands or Healing Hand unless he is in incredibly dire situations. Even then, he inflicts a wound on himself (usually cutting his arm with a sword) as the touch aspect to counter channeling the radiant energy. \$\endgroup\$ – ConfusedDM Jul 3 '19 at 15:26
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He wants to re-flavor his peppermint but its actually orange-flavored to start with

FRAME CHALLENGE

It seems to me that you think that Radiant damage is in some way good or holy and that Necrotic damage is in some way evil or unholy - this is not supported in the rules:

Necrotic. Necrotic damage ... withers matter and even the soul.

Radiant. Radiant damage ... sears the flesh like fire and overloads the spirit with power.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The asker already said it was their player that came to them with the request to change Divine Smite's damage type; nothing indicates that the asker is asking this question because they believe the damage type must reflect alignment. (Also, there's some precedent for damage type dependent on alignment in spirit guardians: "On a failed save, the creature takes 3d8 radiant damage (if you are good or neutral) or 3d8 necrotic damage (if you are evil).") \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 4 '19 at 3:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, the other related meta: Is there an expression (or some expressions) we can use instead of “frame challenge”? (I see you did leave a contrary answer there.) I'm not going to force you to edit out the phrase, but your answer fails to explain how this is meant to answer their question; you should at least elaborate on what you're suggesting (e.g. that there's no need to change the damage type in the first place). Also, I personally think the analogy in your header is a bit unclear, which contributes to your suggestion being unclear. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 4 '19 at 3:59

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